A knife all blade

How do you remain an idealist in the hard, logical world of academia?


I’ve been thinking a lot about idealism lately. I entered university an idealist, believing a more sustainable and equitable world than the one we currently inhabit is achievable. Over the course my my first three weeks here, my idealism has been consistently challenged by my peers, my professors, even my textbooks, and I find myself scrambling to reconcile what I’m learning with my beliefs and goals.

The challenges have arrived mostly in the form of logical arguments regarding why my idealism is unrealistic, so my attempts at reconciliation have been similarly rooted in logic, which is proving to be very difficult. For example, in discussing whether altruism exists or not, it’s very hard to come up with examples of pure altruism to prove that it does exist, since any seemingly altruistic act ultimately makes you feel good about yourself and is therefore in your self-interest. Logic, it seems, is inadequate to prove that altruism exists.

Similarly, in my Global Governance class, we’ve been discussing the idea of a world government which would legislate and enforce laws for the entire world and would therefore be much better than we are now at dealing with global problems like climate change or terrorism. But, for many practical reasons, the idea is considered overly idealistic and unrealistic: another instance of idealism getting bogged down in logic.

Even despite the seemingly overwhelming logic confronting much of my idealism, when I read great thinkers like Oscar Wilde saying that “a map of the world without Utopia is not worth looking at,” I think it might be worth clinging to.

There’s another quote I like that goes: “a mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It cuts the hand that uses it.” I recalled this bit of wisdom from the Indian polymath Rabindranath Tagore yesterday as I was listening to a monk at a Buddhist temple I was visiting out of interest, and it struck me that perhaps I’ve been overly focused on logic while neglecting intuition. Of course, universities are institutions of logic and reasoning, so my recent trend of over-intellectualizing things is perhaps understandable. At the temple, however, there was much talk of how to live a happy and yes, idealistic life, without logic ever being inferred.

Of course, religions rarely feel impelled to justify their teachings with logic, and yet the teachings certainly manage to resonate with many millions of people. After all, extolling virtues of generosity, peace and love, wisdom, and connectedness to others should hardly need justification, and these are essentially the virtues on which most idealism (most of mine, anyway) is based.

So for now, I think I’ll ignore the dissenting voices of logical pessimism and keep my eyes focused on Wilde’s Utopia, justified (I’m still not totally off logic) with one last quote popularized by the ever-wise Kanye West : “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”


A knife all blade

  1. You just need to use a different system of logic based on different axioms (the fundamental rules of the system). Even formal logical systems are limited in what they can do. First off, a logical system always a limited scope (that to which it can be applied). The interesting bit is that the wider the scope the more limitations there are. The ironic fact is that this was proven by Kurt Godel, using a formal system of logic, using a variation of the liars paradox.

    In short, if you’re not using a formal system of logic then the results are not absolute truth, and if you are using a formal system of logic, if it is sufficiently complex, then there will exist statements that cannot be proven nor disproven within the system. The real kicker is that we can’t tell whether or not the statement is provable! Read about Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, and Turing’s Halting Problem.

    As confusing as it all is, it really confirms that some things are just work believing in, that’s all you can do.

  2. Just realize this: if the logical system you are using isn’t formal then you can’t be 100% sure of your results and if it is formal, and sufficiently complex, then there will still exist statements that can neither be proven nor disproven by the system. The kicker is that we can’t determine which statements fall into this category so we try in vain forever to prove them.

    Read about Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, and then about Turing’s Halting Problem.

    The real message is that some things you just can’t prove, you just have to believe.

  3. Oh yeah, and if your system isn’t sufficiently complex, then its scope is probably too limited to prove what you want anyway. Try proving the statement “This statement is not provable”.

    Good luck

  4. Rabindranath Tagore is the person who first made the quote, “A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.”

    Were the quote obscure your misattribution would have been understandable, but when there are 5 results on the first page of a google search that clearly list the author it simply smacks of intellectual laziness for you to claim it as an, “anonymous bit of wisdom”. I have to question how much you truly like the quotation when you can’t even be bothered to take three seconds to look up its author.

    For your own sake, I certainly hope that you put considerably more effort into your academic papers; otherwise you will find college to be quite difficult.

  5. People are very defensive Noah [men esp.] when you tell them that not all human experience needs to be systemised nor confined to order and reason.Just ask your mother the value of intuition…life is so very simple but we insist on making it complicated.

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